Photo by Joanna James

Tibet Itineraries

Tibet in a Week

Mountains and monasteries on the Roof of the World

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Tibet has long been isolated from the outside world by its extraordinary geography; girt by towering mountain ranges in all directions, with an average elevation of 4,500m (14,760ft) and many passes soaring higher still. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the “Roof of the World” exerts a magnetic pull on the imaginations of adventurers and romantics alike.

With the construction of paved roads, airports and the Beijing–Lhasa railway, Tibet’s isolation has diminished, but the region’s scenery is still awe-inspiring, its people warm and welcoming, and their culture and traditions rich. Tibet rewards every kind of exploration, whether you’re poking around Lhasa’s Tromsikhang Market or preparing to tackle Mount Everest’s North Face.

Wherever your itinerary takes you – down backstreets or up mountains – it’s impossible to ignore the important role that Tibetan Buddhism plays in everyday life here. From the omnipresent scent of juniper incense to the wind-whipped prayer flags that festoon each mountain pass, religion touches and enriches every journey on the Tibetan Plateau.

Lhasa and the Potala Palace

The majority of those journeys start in Lhasa, the largest city in Tibet. Lhasa’s modern suburbs sprawl along the Kyi Chu valley, but the city’s heart lies in the Jokhang and the whitewashed warren of ancient streets that surrounds it. Tibet’s holiest shrine, the Jokhang has been a major pilgrimage site since its construction in the 7th century, the paving slabs outside worn smooth by worshippers’ prostrations.

On a rocky outcrop a short walk west of the old city stands the Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lamas. Today it is a monument to a vanished way of life, filled with priceless antiques, fantastic murals decorating its walls. More major monasteries lie within easy reach of downtown Lhasa. Watch monks debating doctrine at Sera; explore eerie Nechung, and try to keep your bearings inside Drepung’s labyrinth of chapels.

For those interested in earthier experiences, Lhasa makes an excellent place to explore other aspects of Tibetan culture, from traditional craft workshops and old town teashops to lively nangma (local nightclubs with live performances and lots of well-lubricated dancing), making it an ideal place to spend a few days getting your bearings and acclimatising to the altitude.

Shigatse and Gyantse

A days’ drive west of Lhasa lie the towns of Shigatse and Gyantse, the two linked by the pretty Nyang Chu valley. Tibet’s second city, Shigatse is best known for Tashilumpo Monastery, once the seat of the Panchen Lamas and one of the few monasteries in Tibet to escape the Cultural Revolution relatively intact. 90km (50 miles) to the southeast, Gyantse’s sleepy streets are watched over by an impressively-sited dzong that was once attacked by a marauding British army, but the real reason to stop here is to see the Gyantse Kumbum. A monumental chörten packed with tiny mural-filled chapels, the fourteenth-century Kumbum is the finest example of its kind.

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Gazing at Mount Everest

Continue west from Shigatse and eventually the road forks south towards the Himalayas and China’s border with Nepal. Gazing slack-jawed at Mount Everest’s North Face will be the highlight of the trip for many travellers. Scene of Mallory’s fateful 1924 summit attempt, this colossal mass of rock, ice and snow seems almost impossibly sheer, and its bulk looms over North Base Camp and tiny Rongbuk Monastery beyond. The Everest region is home to the densest concentration of 8,000-metre (26,250ft) mountains on the planet, with Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu all visible from a single viewpoint on the road to Base Camp. Beyond the mountains, the road drops dramatically to the ragged border town of Zhangmu, just over 100km (60 miles) from Kathmandu.

Back in Tibet and still further to the west lies Ngari, a vast high altitude desert that occupies one of the remotest corners of Asia. Hardy travellers brave this rugged and thinly populated region to reach the 6,714-metre (22,028ft) Mount Kailash. Venerated by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains alike, Mount Kailash is encircled by a tough three-day kora – a single circuit is believed to be enough to erase the sins of a lifetime.

Much of northern Tibet is covered by the Changtang, an immense swathe of grassland underlaid by permafrost. Home to herds of wild yak and Tibetan antelope, the only humans who survive in this harsh landscape are nomads with their spiderlike black tents. Without mounting a full expedition, the best way to get a feel for grassland life is from the Beijing–Lhasa railway and the G108 highway, both of which skirt the Changtang’s eastern edge, and pass close to beautiful Lake Nam-tso, Tibet’s most accessible sacred lake, just a few hours’ drive north of Lhasa.

Lower-lying and covered by alpine forests, eastern Tibet is markedly different to the rest of this often-barren region. Frequently off-limits to foreign visitors for security reasons, long overland routes snake through the mountains and across raging rivers into Sichuan and Yunnan and “China Proper” beyond.

Challenging yet true adventure

And yet, for all Tibet’s attractions, it is difficult to overlook its sensitive political status. While modern-day travellers are perhaps worldly enough not to expect the “Shangri-La” reported by earlier visitors, China’s authoritarian regime here can still shock. This is particularly the case in Lhasa, where the military presence is especially obvious; airport-style security checkpoints control access to the area around the Jokhang, and heavily armed soldiers patrol the largely peaceful streets.

The Chinese government maintains tight control over tourism inside Tibet, and – although the exact requirements can change at short notice – requires that all foreign visitors join organised tours on pre-arranged itineraries. Couple this with the rigours of travelling at altitude and the often basic facilities, and it’s clear that journeys in Tibet come with a unique complement of challenges. For those willing to accept these challenges, however, a true adventure awaits.

When To Go

Tibet’s weather is typically cool and dry between September and June, with the brief rainy season falling in July and August, when the last rainclouds from the Subcontinent’s monsoon spill over the Himalayas. Tibetan high season is split in two by the rains, with most visitors choosing either spring (April–June) or early autumn (September–October), when cool nights, warm days and clear skies make for perfect sightseeing weather.

Winters on the Tibetan Plateau can be bitterly cold, but there is much to be said for heading to Lhasa in November and December, when the city fills with crowds of pilgrims, there are few other visitors about, and the daylight hours are often sunny and warm. Winter conditions get less comfortable as you leave Lhasa behind, and you may have to contend with frozen water pipes and unheated accommodation in more remote locations.

The question of when to visit Tibet is also governed by the availability of Tibet entry permits. Government offices often stop issuing the permits over any “sensitive periods”, commonly including Losar (Tibetan New Year, January–February) and the anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising (various dates in March).

Long distances and the time needed to acclimatise to Tibet’s altitude (typically 2-3 days) mean that you should allow plenty of time for any trip here. Five days will allow enough time to explore Lhasa and a long, rushed day trip to Lake Nam-tso. A week will get you from Lhasa to Kathmandu overland via Gyantse and Shigatse. Allow anywhere from two weeks to a month if you’re planning to do the long trip to Tibet’s wild west or along one of the adventurous overland routes from Qinghai, Sichuan or Yunnan.

Time Zone

GMT 8 (Beijing time)

What it Costs

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.

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$ => $1-xx per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
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$$$ => $xx per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

N/A => Not applicable

$ => Tickets less than $xx per person
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